Explain This: The Why’s Behind Sexy Costumes
Comics have, for a long time now, struggled between two frequently clashing desires. One, to be taken seriously as a legitimate art form and two, to stick improbably proportioned women into skimpy outfits and pose them. This is part of a larger struggle between the camps that want comics to be serious literature and those that want comics to be wish fulfillment fantasies, and writers have long employed a method that’s meant to bridge these two desires: the explanation. You see, this busty superheroine is wearing a skintight outfit with lots of cleavages while she fights terrible forces that want to destroy the world for a reason, and when you hear it, it will all make sense.
This idea of rationalizing the more cartoonish aspects of superhero costume design isn't limited to the sexy costumes; a good recent example is the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, where the ears on Batman’s mask are shown to hide specialized microphones, giving the detective superhero the ability to listen in on conversations on the other side of a wall. These rationalized explanations sometimes work and sometimes don’t; again using Nolan’s bat-ears as an example, the explanation feels largely unnecessary, mostly because Batman wears bat ears because he’s dressed as a bat. The film already gave us a character-driven reason why Bruce Wayne chose bats as the basis for his superhero identity, and the idea of him using a cape to simulate wings and ears on a mask to simulate the silhouette of a scary, nocturnal animal was all you needed. At the same time, however, Batman is also a highly utilitarian character, and it’s actually a decent expression of his strategic personality that he would find a way to make as much use as possible out of every aspect of his costume; the cape might give the impression of wings, but it can also be used as a shield and a glider, and the ears might make him anomalistically intimidating, but they can also be used for reconnaissance. Batman is a versatile enough character that both the explanation and lack of explanation for costume elements like these can work depending on how the version wants to play it.
Sexy costumes, on the other hand, are much more difficult to explain away simply. This is because, no matter how much justification is brought to the table, the real reason behind them is simple: most superheroines in sexy costumes were designed by men, written by men, and intended for a mostly male audience. Nearly every in-story reason for a superheroine wearing high heels or exposing cleavage is going to be easily recognizable as a cooked up form of justification that’s asking you to pretend like this makes sense when it doesn’t. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying again and again. So let’s take a look at a couple of instances where comics have tried to explain away a superheroine’s skimpy outfit. Let’s start with an example where it doesn’t work.
Girl Power, but Sexy
Power Girl is arguably most famous for two things; having the biggest boobs in comics and wearing a costume with a big, giant hole over said boobs. Rationalizing this design choice is nothing new; one of Power Girl’s earliest artists, and the man responsible for the hole in her costume, Wally Wood, claimed he added holes to superheroines’ costumes because he didn’t want them overheating, and while that’s clearly a tongue-in-cheek joke of an excuse, it would become the first of many rationalizations people have tried to use to explain this costume.
Fans have claimed both that it’s to distract male supervillains and that it’s to let her absorb sunlight to fuel her Kryptonian powers; certain writers have tried to claim she proudly displays her cleavage to show off that ‘she’s healthy and female’; in one of the more famous attempts, Geoff Johns tried to make the reason more deep and personal, with Power Girl weepily explaining that she made the costume with a hole she intended to fill with a symbolic emblem later, but she never had a clear enough idea of her own identity to come up with something to put there. Aside from little details, like a gleeful misunderstanding of how costume construction works, explanations like these overlook one very crucial thing: they are wholly unnecessary. The cleavage hole exists as a stylistic choice; it’s not a tool or a weapon that requires an explanation for its use, it’s a part of the costume that was designed as a means of illustrating a character’s personality visually while also being fun to look at (sometimes one of those things more than the other).
What personality is this design trying to convey? Bottom line, she’s confident, she’s aggressive, and she exists in that realm of comics that skews more cheeky and playful than dark and brooding. It’s important to note her origins: she is the Earth-2 version of Supergirl, which inherently means she was designed as a reaction to a character who was designed as a reaction to another character. Supergirl was created to be similar to Superman, but female and younger. The big difference isn’t personality as much as it is intended audience; Supergirl was to be for girls what Superman was to boys. Power Girl is Supergirl from an alternate universe, and in many ways, she’s meant to be an opposite version of Supergirl. While many of the Earth-2 characters are pretty direct analogs of their Earth-1 counterparts, this was because most of the counterparts were intended as full on reboots, rather than acknowledged as alternate universe depictions of the same person. Barry Allen as the Flash was created to be an updated version of Jay Garrick’s Flash, with a new costume and identity, but similar powers and personality. The idea of these two characters existing in mirror universes to each other was something that came later, and once it did, new characters created in Earth-2 were made to be less direct analogs and more alternate takes. The first big difference between Power Girl and Supergirl is age, but Power Girl isn’t just a grown up Supergirl, she’s a fully unique character in her right. Supergirl is meek and mild; Power Girl is bold and abrasive; Supergirl loves being a part of the Superman family, Power Girl wants to forge her own identity; even down to design, Supergirl has traditional long, feminine hair, while Power Girl has a short bob cut. Her personality is meant to be an antitype to Supergirl’s, and she needs a costume that reflects that, so while Supergirl’s costume conveys youth and innocence, Power Girl’s costume reflects a bolder, more adult status (through the lens of a male creative staff and audience, at least).
This is the real explanation, and the stories don’t need to come up with anything more detailed or meaningful than this, but if she has to have an in-universe explanation, let it be her personality. Don’t try to rationalize it, just say it’s a fashion choice. The keyhole is an element of fashion design and has been for a long time; it’s not even that radical of choice, considering the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama wore a keyhole dress for her appearance on the Late Show in late 2016. Even while taken to the cartoonish extreme most superhero design goes, Power Girl would reasonably wear her keyhole design on her superhero costume for the same reasons a real woman would wear a keyhole design on a dress or workout gear; because she likes it. This is one of the things most explanations miss, that people in general, and women in specific, don’t need any particular reason to dress the way they do other than it’s something that they like and it gives them confidence. Claiming Power Girl dresses the way she does to distract male super villains is not only a blatantly transparent justification, it removes from the equation the most important person in both costume design and fashion, the wearer. It’s not about men or anyone else; it’s all about her.
But can it ever work to try and explain why a sexy lady dresses sexy? Well, it can.
Planet of the Hot Aliens
There are a few similarities between Power Girl and Starfire of the Teen Titans, particularly that they are both sunlight fueled alien powerhouses famous for the scantiness of their costumes, but within that similar approach there is one key difference; a major point is made about the foreign nature of Starfire’s alien culture. Power Girl is from an alien society, one that, unlike her cousin Superman, she grew up in until her teenage years before leaving for Earth, but there’s never been a huge push for the general cultural mores or ideas about modesty in social settings to be particularly different in Kryptonian culture from Earth culture (or more accurately, the culture of the United States). Power Girl may be an alien, but she’s assimilated well into Earth culture and was frankly never too far off from it, so when she wears a revealing costume, it has a very similar meaning to her as it would to any other regular human in the area where she lives.
Not so with Starfire. While the culture of Tamaran, her home planet, has been subject to change over the years, one of the major recurring elements is a pervasive sensuality to her people. This is partly reflected in their fictional biology and history; they are portrayed as an emotional, loving people who rarely make war; they absorb sunlight for power, so they bare quite a bit of skin; they even have the ability to learn a language via kissing. This applies to all Tamaraneans, including Starfire, her sister Blackfire, and her (seldom seen) brother, Darkfire. What all this does is explain why Starfire comes to Earth and fights crime in what amounts to a tiny bathing suit and a collar, but for once it works better than normal. There are a few reasons for this; one, it applies to all Tamaraneans. Now, we don’t typically see very many others, but when we do, the men wear space speedos, too. Starfire is a sexy alien, but she comes from a whole planet of sexy aliens. Two, it adds a differing cultural viewpoint to the character partially meant to challenge our perceptions of sexuality.
Starfire can be a battle hardened warrior when she wants to, but when she isn’t, she’s sweet and kind, with a certain air of innocence about her. The Teen Titans animated series emphasized this aspect more than the comics did, even bringing in an element of naivety to her and her lack of awareness when it came to human culture. The comics since 2011, particularly the Starfire solo series, retained the cartoon’s fish out of water sensibility, though with a couple of winks and nudges that imply maybe she’s not as naive as she lets on. Altogether, this makes her a female character who is bold and open and fully in command of her own body and sexuality, but it still is seen as innocent, suggesting that maybe human sexuality isn’t that dirty or sullying of a thing. She even serves as something of a counterpoint to the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, considering her innocence is not tied to a lack of experience, but to the fact that her culture doesn’t see sensual experience as something that makes them less innocent. Not a bad message.
It’s the fact that they have a message they are trying to convey with Starfire’s design and approach towards sexuality that makes the explanation behind it all work. Something is objectively added to the character’s personality and her context within the shared universe of these stories using them adding an explanation to her dress. Now, it is worth noting that, much like Power Girl, the message on display here chiefly involves a discussion of female sexuality as curated by male staff, and because of that the message can occasionally get lost behind the titillation of these designs. There is, however, a solution to this problem.
Let The Ladies Do It
The number one issue with trying to claim some kind of an explanation or message or meaning behind sexy costumes on superheroines is that they very clearly were designed with the male gaze in mind. Coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975, the male gaze is the idea that visual arts controlled by men depict the world from a masculine point of view, frequently reducing female characters to objects of male pleasure. We see this quite frequently in comics; female characters wear skintight costumes and pose in ways that accentuate their curves (one of the infamous results being the reoccurring ‘boobs and butt’ pose, where a female character is contorted into improbable positions so the reader can see both her boobs and butt in the same shot); male characters can still wear skintight costumes, but this tends to emphasize their muscles and strength rather than any sexuality, and their poses reflect power rather than objectification. Both male and female characters are being depicted in a way that appeals to a masculine perspective.
This doesn’t have to be a fully intentional thing, nor does it mean that men are incapable of handling the artwork depicting women. For instance, Power Girl has quite a bit of support from female readers, and not just in recent comics, but going back to the Wally Wood days. Part of the reason for this is that Wally Wood knew how to draw women realistically, including the thick ones, and even while she was clearly being drawn to be titillating to male audiences, her body was not actively being distorted for the sake of objectification, and this has endeared her to a female audience as well as a male one. Men are capable of handling this well, and no reasonable critic is asking that men not be allowed to draw superheroines. But at the very least, having a disproportionate amount of men behind the scenes is going to result in a skewed perspective, even when those men are trying to do something fresh or progressive with their work.
The answer is simply to have more women behind the scenes, especially when it comes to design. Female creators have a more innate understanding of how women’s bodies work on an anatomical level, and what clothing, including superhero costumes, needs to do to accommodate that. Amanda Conner has been drawing Power Girl frequently since the early 2000’s, and her depiction of the costume uses seams to depict a thicker material and imply an inside support akin to a sports bra, the kind that a real life woman of Power Girl’s proportions would need to feel comfortable. Connor similarly redesigned Starfire’s costume in 2015, and while still swimsuit inspired, the costume was less ‘ribbon and hope’ and more based on legitimate structural integrity. Even where it has holes, those holes match up with where you typically find openings in female wrestling costumes and athletic wear, which, uh, actually does help ventilate the costume and prevent athletes from overheating (at least in certain climates). Yes, these costumes are still sexy which reflects the background and personality of the characters, but they also have an attention to detail that prevents them from turning into pure fantasy. The costumes feel like something these characters could wear and would choose to wear in these situations.
The problem with objectification is not that there are women who are depicted as sexy, it’s that the sexuality of their depiction overrides all other elements of their depiction, reducing them to objects. Female creators bring some much-needed insight to the table when it comes to this kind of design, and lest anyone worry that this would result in the costumes being less sexy, let’s take a look at the record here. Power Girl and Starfire’s redesigns that are both sexy and practical? Designed by a woman. Vampirella’s frankly ridiculous sling suit that nonetheless actually has a surprising amount of structural integrity (albeit, not really for fighting in)? Designed by Trina Robbins, a pioneer in the underground comix scene of the 70’s. The costumes of the WWE Divas, ranging from athletic to glamorous, all while being able to withstand a beating? For the last 20 years, they’ve been designed by Sandra Gray, a self-taught seamstress who designs and creates men’s and women’s costumes for the WWE.
While the comics industry needs to take a look at the imbalance of how many superheroines are heavily sexualized, the solution is not inherently to desexualize everybody; it’s to get more women involved in the artistic process behind these depictions. It’s to emphasize character and personality and make sure that the costumes fit how the characters behave, whether that be flamboyant and vampy, or modest and utilitarian. While they’re at it, how about having some of these female creators involved with the male superheroes, to add some underrepresented female gaze to the depiction of male characters. It’s time for the comic industry to stop explaining objectification and start doing something about it.